We all have them: Those family vacation ideas so big and so ambitious (and maybe so expensive) that they’re the kind of trips you only dream about. But if living through a once-in-a-century pandemic has taught us anything, maybe that lesson should be to seize the day and make those vacation dreams a reality.
Bucket List Family Vacation Destinations
So as you update your family vacation bucket list with new countries and new must-do experiences to have with your children, here are some family vacation spots in the U.S., Europe, and beyond that deserve serious consideration. Each of these bucket list destinations offers a bevy of child-friendly tourist attractions, family-oriented activities, and the chance to make memories that will last a lifetime.
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1. Western Norway
One of the prettiest and most pristine places to visit with kids on the planet, Western Norway (specifically the 500 miles from Bergen to Trondheim) is also the particular slice of heaven that my two daughters would drop everything to return to again and again. It’s there among the colorful wooden buildings, KODE museums, Fløyen Mountain, and the sublime Olivia Restaurant, that you should begin your bucket list family vacation in Norway.
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After Bergen, head north via scenic roads and car ferries to experience the charming Flåm railway, the “Norwegian Book Town” of Fjærland, and Jostedalsbreen National Park, until you reach the art nouveau city of Alesund and its picturesque archipelago.
Continue along the Atlantic Road—a stunning drive hugging the rugged and wild coast—which will take you over the most-eye popping bridge your kids have ever seen. By the time you reach Trondheim, you’ll have traveled through a wonderland of idyllic Scandinavian towns. And chances are that your kids, like mine, will be eager to do it all over again.
2. The Maldives
A true bucket list vacation destination, The Maldives is one of those places that most families only dream of. But visiting this collection of island paradises in the Indian Ocean with so with kids has never been easier, more rewarding, or more relaxing thanks to one resort’s expanding menu of family-friendly offerings.
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The overwater bungalows at Emerald Maldives Resort and Spa should be near the top of your family bucket list because kids are pampered and treated every bit as luxuriously as adults there. Think family cooking classes where they’ll learn to make a batch of genuine Italian gelato with local ingredients, yoga sessions designed especially for young people, and rejuvenating spa treatments like a chocolate clay body wrap. What better way to put all the stress, fear, and change of the pandemic behind them?
Add in a two-bedroom beach villa with a private garden, an under-the-stars outdoor shower, and a private turquoise pool, and you have the makings of the most magical and memorable family vacation on the planet.
3. Paris and Normandy, France
A trip to Paris should be on every family’s vacation bucket list. Yes, the City of Light is home to some of Europe’s best tourist attractions, but Paris also has lots of unexpected delights for families (even if you only spend a few days there).
Treat the kids to lunch at Les Café des Chats, an actual “cat café” where a dozen fluffy cats live and lounge among the patrons. Almost everyone can find something to enjoy at the Louvre Museum, but a postcard-perfect afternoon in Luxembourg Gardens might appeal to kids if museums aren’t your family’s thing. The absolute experience with kids in Paris, though, is navigating the winding streets and twisting alleyways where you can wander freely and make surprise discoveries—always with a fresh baguette or crepe in hand.
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Extend your Paris vacation with a train ride to Claude Monet’s house and garden in Giverny, the very spot where his world-renowned waterlilies came to life on canvas; or a day trip to Louis XIV’s opulent Palace of Versailles, as stunning today as it was at the height of its glory. For more history, visit the incomparable Mont Saint-Michel for a Hogwarts-esque experience not far from the D-Day landing sites in Normandy.
4. Reykjavik and the Golden Circle, Iceland
For a relatively small island, Iceland packs more than its share of fun family travel adventures. Start in the capital of Reykjavik, where the sun barely sets between mid-May and mid-August and the temperatures never get too hot or too cold for kids to enjoy in the summer months.
You’ve probably heard of the Blue Lagoon and its steaming geothermal waters, but one of the best—and trendiest—things to do with older kids these days is The Ritual at Sky Lagoon. This immersive geothermal experience is an upscale take on the geothermal spa experience, blending warm water, cold water, warm steam, and dry heat with fresh air in an unforgettable experience that even the sulkiest teenagers will enjoy.
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Other fun things to do with kids in and around Reykjavik include Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, the most famous hot dog stand in the country; Omnom Chocolate Ice Cream Shop, where you can enjoy a Nutty Wolf, arguably the greatest ice cream concoction on Earth; and Perlan, an innovative exploratorium with the world’s first indoor ice cave and a simulated Northern Lights experience.
Outside Reykjavik, take an easily navigable road trip on the legendary Ring Road, which will bring you past a plethora of jaw-dropping waterfalls, up close and personal with glaciers and icebergs, and face to face with puffins in the village of Vik. Before you know it you’ll be up north near the charming harbor town of Husavik, home to some of the best whale watching excursions anywhere in the world.
5. New York, New York
Families come to New York City from all over the world to experience its Broadway shows, world-class museums, and one-of-a-kind shopping opportunities. And as bucket list destinations go, New York vacations are surprisingly affordable, especially if you make an effort to explore the city’s the free and nearly-free attractions.
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Kids love exploring The Vessel, Little Island, and The High Line, three of the best free things to do in NYC. Listening to buskers and jazz musicians jamming in the parks is another fun activity with kids. Even if you’ve visited the usual tourist sites in Midtown before, there’s always something new and different to see in the Villages (East, West, and Greenwich).
Other ideas: Dig into scrumptious scones at Alice’s Tea Cup on your way to The Met and the American Museum of Natural History, and dip down to the financial district to take in the solemn 9/11 Museum and Memorial. No matter what your family loves most, New York City has it in abundance.
6. Alaska Cruises
Cruise ships are already a bastion of kid-friendly fun, what with the 24-hour soft serve ice cream, water parks and private islands, roller coasters (on the new Carnival Mardi Gras), zip lines and laser tag (Royal Caribbean’s Symphony of the Seas), and go-karts (Norwegian Encore). But family cruises to Alaska are a next-level bucket list family vacation.
For families, the best Alaska cruises are offered by Disney Cruise Line, Carnival Cruises, Princess Cruises, Royal Caribbean, Celebrity Cruises, and Norwegian Cruise Line. You’ll see nature in a whole new light while eating fresh seafood, enjoying excursions to places like the Yukon Territory, and having opportunities to soar high above the glaciers on a seaplane or get up close and personal with bears in the wild.
7. Chilean Patagonia and the Atacama Desert, Chile
Stretching from one end of South America to the other, the climate and topography of Chile is more diverse than nearly anywhere else on Earth. In the north, your kids can experience an otherworldly landscape of salt flats, saline lakes, geysers, volcanoes, and rock formations, including one area appropriately called Valle de la Luna, or the Valley of the Moon. As impressive as northern Chile is during the day, however, it’s even more impressive after dark. The whole universe presents itself when you go stargazing in the Atacama desert.
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In the center of the country, Chile’s cosmopolitan capital of Santiago is backdropped by the snow-capped Andes and offers up museums, restaurants, neoclassical landmarks, and a lot of family fun that can be enjoyed in just a few nights.
Of course, you haven’t fully seen this safe and friendly country until you’ve ventured south to Chilean Patagonia. The lower third of Chile is as close to fiction as a factual place can get thanks in large part to Torres del Paine National Park and Magdalena Island. When booking your Chilean adventure, remember that in the southern hemisphere, the seasons are reversed, so our summer is their winter.
8. Athens and Ancient Greek Sites, Greece
Take your Percy Jackson-obsessed grade schoolers straight to the source material with a bucket list family vacation to Greece. Start in Athens and see some of the most iconic Europe tourist attractions, including the Acropolis, Parthenon, and Temple of Athena. But that’s just the start of the Ancient Greek fun. There are so many more amazing ruins to see, including Hadrian’s Library, founded by Emperor Hadrian in 132 CE; and The Olympieion, also called the Temple of Olympian Zeus.
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Climb the steps of the Olympic Stadium, a replica of a massive ancient athletics stadium built for the 1896 Games, and make a run or two to burn off the calories from all the gyros you’ll consume while wandering the ancient city’s crooked streets.
Other places to visit include the Temple of Poseidon on the Aegean coast in Sounio, the Cave of Zeus (the purported birthplace of the god) located on the island of Crete, and Delphi, where your kiddos will want to listen to the prophecies of the Oracle while visiting the Temple of Apollo.
In many ways, Singapore seems like a fantasy land. It’s both a big city and a tiny country—yet when Singapore is measured by ambition and cleanliness, few places on Earth show more promise for the future. It’s also the most family-friendly bucket list destination in Asia, and almost everyone speaks enough English to meet you in the middle after you and your family have learned some Singlish (a hybrid language of the many ethnic groups in the country).
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Take Gardens by the Bay, for example. This naturalistic escape features iconic structures and a chance for your family to connect with unusual plants, blooming flowers, and a literal floral fantasy on the ground and in the air via the OCBC Skyway. In the evening, you can see thousands of animals from around the globe in their natural environments during the Singapore Night Safari.
While enjoying this family vacation wonderland, be sure to spend an afternoon at the architectural gem that is the ArtScience Museum. Inside this open tulip of a building, you will see Leonardo da Vinci’s flying machine as well as a wide range of exhibits which at any given moment may include anything from Harry Potter film sets to Titanic artifacts. And speaking of iconic architecture, splurge on a stay at the glorious Marina Bay Sands Hotel to cement your family vacation memories.
10. Lisbon, Portugal
Often overlooked by Americans in favor of nearby Spanish destinations Madrid and Barcelona, Lisbon’s chic urban life and riveting day trips make it one of the top places to visit with kids anywhere in Europe. In this thriving capital city, you’ll enjoy climbing up and descending the winding alleyways of the Alfama neighborhood, riding the picturesque tram cars when your legs need a break, and eating far too many pastel de natal pastries. On Fridays in summertime, families can explore the Castelo de São Jorge for free while enjoying live music, expansive city views, and stunning sunsets.
Shop and have lunch at the XL Factory, a stellar example of architectural reuse; see a match at one of Portugal’s two top-flight soccer teams with magnificent stadiums; and get around easily by riding on the clean and safe public transit system.
And while Lisbon is a remarkable city, you really should plan on at least two day trips: one to the flamboyantly colorful Palace of Sintra, which looks like a real life Crayola factory; and another to the adorable beach town of Cascais. Each is a direct 45-minute train ride from the city center.